‘Doubling down’ on racial injustice. Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner
Throughout the history of the Reform movement, we have reached out across lines of race, faith and other forms of difference to foster deep relationships and build coalitions in the pursuit of justice for all. We welcome all: Jews and non-Jews, people of all races and religions, all sexual orientations and gender identities, and the immigrants and refugees among us. This welcome is central to who we are, and how we see our country. The election of Donald Trump does not change that.
This past Shabbat, we read Parsha Lech Lecha, in which God challenges Abraham to “go forth.” Like Abraham before us, we now find ourselves going forward in the face of great uncertainty.
We did not need this deeply polarizing election to tell us what we already knew: that racism persists in deep and corrosive ways in our country, that acceptance of misogyny and even sexual assault is commonplace, and that xenophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism continue to fester.
Even so, the 2016 election brought those long-simmering strains of hatred into mainstream political discourse. Violent, exclusionary rhetoric dominated this election in ways not seen in mainstream politics for a generation. The Trump campaign ran advertising that featured thinly veiled allusions to centuries-old anti-Semitic propaganda. The Anti-Defamation League, in a groundbreaking study, estimated that anti-Semitic tweets received 10 billion views during the year leading up to the election.
As a community of faith, which includes both liberals and conservatives, we have a responsibility to reject hate and help heal our nation. In the face of polarization, we will build bridges. We need to examine the ruptures in our social fabric, and the ease with which some people appear ready to cast their fellow Americans as “others.” This campaign season was filled with a sense of grievance. Those tensions will not evaporate now that Election Day has passed.
We need to hear and respond to those who feel dispossessed or left out of our evolving economy and culture. Even so, economic anxiety or nostalgia for times-gone-by can never be an excuse to sanction bigotry. Our task is to bring people together, shepherd understanding and guide our country towards a just future.
With the election over, we move forward. We are inspired by the call to rodeph tzedek — pursue justice — and our commitment to stand together with all Americans in pursuit of liberty and justice for all people, regardless of race or creed.
The Reform movement will continue to address the racial injustices that plague our nation. We are committed to doubling down on this work, strengthening our longstanding alliances and forging new relationships. Our movement is the largest and most diverse in North America, and roughly 10 percent of American Jews are people of color. These issues directly affect us all. If we turn a blind eye to racism, we allow members our family to be oppressed, and we allow our country to be diminished.
We are particularly focused on criminal justice reform and the right to vote, in jeopardy in the first presidential election in more than 50 years without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act. New voter ID laws reduced polling hours and locations and — in the words of an appeals court judge in North Carolina — targeted African Americans with almost “surgical precision.” These attempts to limit democratic participation contradict the highest values of our nation.
Addressing the deeply rooted racial disparities in our criminal justice system is also an urgent need. One in three black men will go to jail in America in their lifetimes, compared to one in six Latino men and just one in 17 white men. Overall, roughly 2.2 million Americans are imprisoned, making us the nation with both the highest per capita incarceration rate and the most people behind bars. Our criminal justice system treats too many people as if they are disposable, and the effects are especially devastating for men of color and their families. We must refuse to tolerate the status quo.
Our movement has a long history of bipartisan work in Washington. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both drafted in part at the Washington headquarters of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, each passed with bipartisan support in Congress. In that spirit, we hope that the president-elect changes his tone and uses the power of his office to bring the American people together. If he does that, we will be ready to work with him for the common good. If he does not, we are ready to be fierce advocates for the enduring values that guide us: inclusion, justice and compassion.
Rabbi Pesner is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C.
Four issues to watch in the coming months.
Nathan J. Diament
The 2016 presidential election campaign is finally over. Donald Trump secured a remarkable victory over Hillary Clinton, and Republicans held onto their majority control of the House of Representatives and Senate. Trump campaigned touting a range of bold, if not always detailed, policy positions on immigration, trade pacts, Obamacare and more. While a majority of American Jews supported Hillary Clinton, many (Orthodox Jews in particular) voted for Trump and were attracted to do so on the twin bases of rejecting Clinton as the candidate of continuity (and, effectively, a third Obama term) as well as policies Trump proposed on key issues.
As president-elect, Trump begins his transition to the White House in earnest, here is a roundup of policies relevant to the Jewish community to be further developed and implemented in 2017.
Israel’s Security: The Jewish voters who supported Trump primarily did so because they thought he would be best for the security of Israel. Trump vigorously criticized President Obama’s policies toward Israel with regard to its conflict with the Palestinians, and his election will have a beneficial impact before he even takes the oath of office on Jan. 20. In recent weeks, there has been a lot of public speculation about whether President Obama might take one last action with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That step could range from the U.S. supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution recognizing a Palestinian state, to a resolution declaring Israeli settlements illegal, or a speech unilaterally laying out his specific vision for resolving the conflict.
Of course, any such move would be counterproductive to the real prospects for peace by encouraging to the Palestinians not to engage in direct negotiations with Israel. Now, Trump’s election makes such a move by Obama unlikely, if not irrelevant. His election is a repudiation of Obama’s eight years of pressing Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians, and this should make Obama reluctant to do it yet again; and even if Obama does take such a step, it will now be viewed as irrelevant to the incoming administration. Indeed, Trump making good on his firm commitment to finally relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem may send the most useful message to Israel’s enemies in decades.
The nuclear deal with Iran was an important focus of the campaign as well. Trump regularly spoke out against it and promised to abolish it. The president-elect must immediately charge his transition team with planning specific steps they will aggressively undertake in the first days of his administration to rein in Iran on the nuclear front and also confront Iran on its expansive sponsorship of terrorism. In Washington, an oft-stated cliché is that “personnel is policy,” and Trump must rapidly identify appointees who possess the seriousness and energy demanded to thwart the Islamic Republic.
Education: Trump committed himself to improving education opportunities for American children through school choice initiatives. He presented this primarily in the context of increasing opportunities for minority and low-income children. However, the cost of Jewish education remains the preeminent domestic issue in many Jewish households (especially in New York, where Jewish students are the largest bloc of children in nonpublic schools). Trump broadly spoke of undertaking a long-overdue reform of federal education funding by redirecting $20 billion in federal education funds to state programs that allow the funds to “follow the student” to the school of his or her family’s choice. Such a reform could spark new educational opportunity in America and have a revolutionary impact upon the challenge of Jewish education affordability.
Religious Liberty: Religious liberty is the bedrock upon which American Jewry has flourished. Its discussion in the 2016 campaign was mostly limited to Trump promising to repeal the tax code’s restriction on clergy endorsing candidates from the pulpit (something many rabbis and other clergy actually do not desire) and Clinton assailing Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban.” But the dimension of this issue of greatest concern to Orthodox Jews — as well as traditional Catholics, Evangelicals and Mormons —is striking the proper balance between the expansion of civil rights for gay Americans (already undertaken by the Supreme Court and many state legislatures) and protections for religious institutions and individuals with dissenting views. We are in the midst of a fractious debate over this, and a compromise that delivers fairness for all will take real leadership and compromise from the White House and bipartisan leaders in Congress.
Anti-Semitism: Trump’s campaign attracted support from white supremacists and others who articulate the tropes of rank anti-Semitism (and other forms of pernicious speech). An essential role for a president of the United States is to unite the nation, embrace people of all faiths, ethnicities and reject those who stoke hate and division. While these fringe elements found no welcome in the mainstream GOP, as president-elect, Trump must undertake explicit steps in this direction to set a proper foundation for his leadership of this diverse country.
Every American presidential election is, by definition, historic. But the 2016 election is already recognized as an inflection point for American politics and policy. President Trump will pursue policies dramatically different from those promoted by President Obama or his preferred successor. This will provide new opportunities for American Jewry’s interests, and we must partner with the new president and allies in Congress to pursue them and serve our community and country.
Nathan Diament is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Orthodox Union Advocacy Center.